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Health experts make the case for “activity equivalent” food labelling

Earlier this month, Chief Executive at the Royal Society for Public Health Shirley Cramer argued in The BMJ that food should be labelled with the equivalent exercise to expend its calories in a bid to help people change their behaviour.

Activity-labelling-02

 

She states that giving consumers an immediate link between foods’ energy content and exercise might help to reduce obesity and is calling for “innovative initiatives to change behaviour at population level.”

According to the latest health stats, over two-thirds of adults in the UK are now overweight or obese [1]. This is likely to increase, with 60% of men and 50% of women predicted to be obese by 2050 [2].

Given that the severe health consequences of obesity can include heart disease, cancer and diabetes, it has become vital that the food industry does its bit to encourage healthier lifestyle choices before the government and the UK’s public health system can no longer cope.

In January, the RSPH published its report on the subject, which suggests that one way for the food industry to make a positive contribution could be to introduce activity equivalent calorie labelling on products, in addition to standard front-of-pack information which lists energy, fat, saturates, sugar and salt content.

Cramer suggests that the symbols could show the minutes of several different physical activities that would be equivalent in calories expended to the calories in the product.

She says:

“The objective is to prompt people to be more mindful of the energy they consume and how these calories relate to activities in their everyday lives, and to encourage them to be more physically active.”

Currently, 4 in 10 English adults do not perform the recommended amount of physical activity according to the British Heart Foundation. This is despite evidence that even light exercise such as a daily 20 minute walk could lower an individual’s risk of premature death by between 16-30%.

It is hoped that by clearly displaying how much physical activity would roughly equate to the calories in the product will not only positively influence consumer behaviour changes but also serve as a reminder of the benefits of physical activity.

According to a Populus poll included within the RSPH report almost half (44%) of people find current front of pack information confusing and almost two-thirds (63%) of people would support the introduction of activity equivalent calorie labelling.

Over half (53%) of people also stated that they would positively change their behaviour after viewing activity equivalent labels on food products.

Our findings show that people were also over 3 times more likely to indicate that they would undertake physical activity after seeing activity equivalent calorie labels, compared with current traffic light front-of-pack information.

Cramer does highlight that food packaging is governed by European legislation and that “fundamental change to packaging harbours little appetite among EU officials and food manufacturers.”

Nevertheless, Cramer would like to see research into the potential impacts, of activity equivalent labelling and, if it is shown to be an effective means to influence consumers, she states the RSPH would “implore law makers and industry to implement it to reduce obesity in the UK.”

Read the full RSPH report to find out more about activity equivalent labelling.

 

[1] Health and Social Care Information Centre. 2015. Statistics on obesity, physical activity and diet http://www.hscic.gov.uk/catalogue/PUB16988/obes-phys-acti-diet-eng-2015.pdf  (accessed December 2015).

[2] Government Office for Science. 2007. Tackling obesities: Future choices – project report 2nd edition https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/287937/07-1184x-tackling-obesities-future-choices-report.pdf  (accessed January 2016).

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